Cloud computing has progressed from a buzzword thrown around by those in the know to a real technology that is gaining more traction with consumers every day. The benefits and drawbacks of cloud computing on an organizational level are still being hotly debated by IT professionals. In this article, however, we’ll look at what cloud computing means to an everyday computer user. (For background reading, see Cloud Computing: Why the Buzz?)

What Is the Cloud?

The cloud is basically another way to refer to the internet. Cloud computing essentially means that you do most of your processing through the internet. This is easier to understand with an example.

Traditional Computing

Traditionally, when you want to write a letter using your computer, you open the word processing software you’ve installed. This software is run using your computer's resources, and allows you to write a letter and then save it on your computer's memory. This has worked fine for years – and it still works. However, your letter writing is limited by how much memory you have on your computer because you need space to store those letters. It would take a lot of letters to use up an average PC's memory, but just keep in mind that your computer has a finite amount of space. Moreover, if you want to edit the letters using another machine, you need to transfer that file to the other machine and make sure that machine has compatible word-processing software.

Cloud Computing

Now let’s look at letter writing with a cloud-based word processor like Google Documents. Instead of firing up a word processing program on your own computer, you use a browser and log in to Google Docs. The browser is the only program using your computer's resources. You can do many of the same things with this cloud-based word processor, including writing the letter and saving it. However, when you save your letter, you'll save it online, so that your computer's memory remains free. When you want to edit the letter from a different machine, you can just log in, regardless of the software on that machine. In fact, as long as a device has an internet connection and a browser, the software and the hardware of the device matter very little.

While this is exciting, it is worth noting that a free, cloud-based word processor like Google Docs is usually not quite as feature-rich as a traditional word-processing software package. That said, it is free and most casual users won’t notice a huge difference.

So now that we know what cloud computing is, let’s look at the impact it is likely to have in your life.

Cloud Computing: More Space, Greater Access

One of the most interesting implications of cloud computing is the ability to store more data on the internet. This means a lot more space to store things at fairly low rates – and the ability to access stored data from any device. There are, of course, concerns about the stability and the security of the cloud, but the attraction of being able to store thousands of movies, songs, photos and documents – and then access them from any device – is a powerful one.

Of course, there may always be some files that people want to keep absolutely private no matter what, but the total size of all this data is likely to be small. Without a huge data burden, home computers could get by with smaller hard drives. In fact, a recurring theme in cloud computing is the lower demands it places on personal computers, which reduces the need for a powerful (and expensive) home computer. If you have your data in the cloud and the applications to interact with that data are also cloud-based, your computer itself does very little work.

The Death of Software?

The idea that cloud computing is going to be the end of the software industry is a bit of a misunderstanding. Cloud computing still requires applications, they are just being run, maintained and updated elsewhere. There will still be software in the cloud computing world, but the need to update software or install new versions will be absent. However, some client-server setups may still need an update to the thin-client. Browsers need occasional updates as well.

The best known cloud-computing applications so far are web-based email services like Gmail, YahooMail and so on. These are currently free, but there is no reason to believe all cloud computing applications will be in the future. The likely business model may involve a subscription fee, which would be charged to users who access cloud services. There are already subscription-based movie and gaming services in the cloud, so we know this model is working for now. Cloud storage already exists, and users pay for the space they use. Again, this is unlike traditional computing where you always pay for more storage than you think you will need.

The Disposable Computer

Perhaps the most interesting and disruptive impact of cloud computing is that it opens up the possibility of disposable computers. Replacing a computer usually involves spending the money for a new computer, buying and installing software, and then transferring and organizing all your data on the new machine. With cloud computing, your data and software are waiting as you left them, no matter which machine you use, which could render top-of-the-line models virtually obsolete. Take that a little further, and you have cheap computers that you can replace with very little trouble. This would represent a reversal of a primary trend in computing that has seen computer hardware requirements grow in tandem with computing capabilities. With cloud computing, the capabilities – what you can do with your data – can increase even if your computer hardware remains the same.

Time to Get Your Head In the Clouds?

Cloud computing takes the focus off a particular device, allowing you to access your data and do your computing from almost any internet-enabled machine. However, there are still some issues with cloud computing that will keep people from throwing away their PCs and hard drives. The two major concerns regarding cloud computing have to do with reliability and security. Essentially, users still have some concerns about whether their data will be there when they need it – and whether sensitive data will be safe from hackers. (To read about cloud computing's drawbacks, see The Dark Side of the Cloud.)

These questions will only be answered with time and experience as more people begin using the cloud for their storage and computing needs. Until then, many people will continue to use some cloud applications while avoiding others. If cloud computing continues to improve – as it should – more people will begin to see the virtue of having their heads in "the cloud."